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The vicunas, possessors of the world's finest wool, are now, for the first time in history, in the possession of the people of South America. For over a millennium, vicuna wool was the prized and jealously guarded privilege of Inca royalty and the wealthiest classes of modern South America, but political and economic innovations are re-organizing the means of vicuna wool production.

Vicuna fleeces are prized throughout the world for their incredible quality. They are far more comfortable and attractive even than cashmere wools and the small number of animals makes their fleeces even more expensive.

Vicunas are small mammals related to llamas. They grow to about three feet in height and weigh an average of one hundred pounds. Living only at altitudes of thirteen to sixteen thousand feet (three to four and half thousand meters) in the Andes mountain range of South America, they were hunted almost to extinction in the twentieth century. Since strict laws were set up by the Conventions for the Conservation of the Vicuna in 1969 and 1979, the vicuna population has been on the upswing. The conventions themselves were signed by Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. The conventions established that no products made from vicuna wool could be legally obtained or traded within the boundaries of the countries. While the black market continued to function, conservation efforts were wildly successful, making the harvesting of vicuna wool possible again.

Vicuna wool is so highly treasured that a coat made from the material costs an average of $6000. As only one-quarter pound of hair can be sheared from any one vicuna per season, about forty animals are necessary for the production of such a coat. The raw fleece of the vicuna is valued around $225 per pound.

For centuries, Inca royalty maintained strict observance of laws, which forbade commoners to wear vicuna wool. Although the Inca rule was lost when the Spaniards and Portuguese came to South America, the wool's regulation continued to favor the wealthy, ruling classes because the State governments took over ownership of the animal herds.

Today, thanks to the efforts of dedicated and foresighted officials, the vicuna population has reached approximately 15,000 and their fleeces are being harvested in ways that will ensure the continued growth of the species. The Peruvian government handed ownership of the animals back to the common villagers of the country, creating a viable and stable source of income for struggling villagers.

The innovative policies provide for government sponsored chacus, or fleecing days when the vicunas are trapped and sheared (at less than a 2% injury rate and no fatalities). In Inca days, the chacu was the standard way of catching and fleecing vicunas, but it fell out of favor when guns was introduced to the populace of the country. The return to traditional methods enables the vicuna population to continue and eliminates poaching by removing the only thing that vicuna have worth taking.

Since the villagers maintain possession of the vicuna and the means of wool production have been secured by the Peruvian government to stay within the villages, the villagers now have an economically sustainable system. While this, by no means, reduces the cost of production (quite the opposite), it assures that vicuna wool will be available to countless generations and that the Peruvian villagers will be able to support themselves. The wool is, however, affordable to only a very few with refined tastes and the financial resources to satisfy them.

Although vicuna wool is now legally available throughout most of the world, it continues to be illegal in the United States, as the vicuna is still considered to be an endangered species. So to get clothing manufactured from the vicunas' fleece, an American citizen is going to have to visit another country or order it from one. Nevertheless, the resurgence of the vicuna population and the development of sustainable economic uses thereof give hope for economic and government policies the world over.